This is a biography of the Eighteenth Century poet and monk who wrote under the name Sayat Nova, although the director Sergei Parajanov informs us at the beginning that he is striving to present the man’s life in the same way that his poetry would have been, starting with a series of images of pomegranates shedding their juices, a knife stained with blood and fish flapping on a cloth, simple but indicating the manner in which the film will progress. Then we launch into the poet’s early life where he was brought up among the religious orders and those who made their living as wool dyers, which Sayat Nova would assist with, for example helping to dry out precious books sodden with rainwater…
The Colour of Pomegranates regularly emerges in lists of the greatest films ever made, and if not the greatest cinematically then the greatest visually, its reputation as an exquisitely beautiful experience was cemented at the end of the Twentieth Century when it finally became widely available to watch. And why was there a gap between the film’s completion and its proper distribution? A small matter of the Soviet authorities taking one look at what Parajanov had concocted and throwing up their hands in horror – how did this fit in with their usual run of propaganda and prestige pictures that was the Soviet Union’s usual stock in trade as far as the motion picture industry went?
This didn’t even have a narrative that could be discerned without some extremely specialised knowledge, it was representational and symbolic rather than straightforward, and thus the conservatives’ suspicions were raised. It didn’t help that the director was getting into increasing trouble for his subversive ways, and that included his homosexuality, so The Colour of Pomegranates proved to be his final feature for the best part of fifteen years or more as he was imprisoned after being banned from doing what he loved, his vocation as a filmmaker. Well, you can see he was doing what he loved, but the fact remained the creation of this film delivered nothing but stress for him and his team.
There was near constant interference, the living conditions were poor to say the least, and there wasn’t even a guarantee the finished work would be released at all, not in the form Parajanov wanted at any rate, and so it was it was re-edited by the authorities while he was banished to some artistic wilderness. His treatment was nothing short of outrageous, but there was nothing he or anyone else could do to prevent it, and thus here was a film that languished in relative obscurity until it managed to be salvaged in a form more akin to what the director wanted it to be. Which was all very well, but if as with most of those who encounter it, you have little to no idea of what was supposed to be happening, was it really any good in the first place?
Of course, just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s worthless, and this assuredly was not, as while the finer details would have been left to scholars of Armenian history to pore over, you could simply be carried along by the striking shots of carefully composed tableaux, some of which featured actors moving around, others objects, but always something to captivate the eye, and besides it was barely over an hour long so you were unlikely to be bored unless you really had made up your mind this was not to be given the space to breathe that it needed. If it had a star, actress Sofiko Chiaureli was it, playing multiple roles from the poet himself to the love of his life in an indication of Parajanov’s sexuality that many view as essential in gay cinema. You could get an idea of what was a simple enough life to follow if only from the interstitial captions, basically childhood, love, religion and death were involved, as was the case with so many. Still, there will always be a problem with a film you had to read up about first to grasp its points. Music by Tigran Mansuryan.